Should the Detroit Tigers buy or sell?

The Detroit Tigers roared out of the gates this season, winning the first six games of the season, and 11 of the first 13. They ended April with a 15-8 record. What followed that hot start, however, was two months of mediocre baseball — 13-16 in May and 11-13 in June. Since starting the year 11-2, the Tigers are 30-37, and have a negative run differential on the season.

Now, five games behind the Kansas City Royals in the American League Central and 1.5 games behind the surprising Minnesota Twins in second, the Tigers find themselves at a crossroads. Miguel Cabrera, who was having a typical Miguel Cabrera year with a .350/.456/.578 line, suffered a Grade 3 left calf sprain on Friday and will likely miss the next six weeks of action. The injury could not have come at a worse time for the Tigers, who will battle for their playoff lives without arguably the best hitter in the American League.

If the Tigers do fall from contention in Cabrera’s absence, it will not likely be due to lack of offensive production. Detroit leads the American League with a .278 batting average. J.D. Martinez has continued to show that last year was no fluke, and has already hit 22 home runs this year to go along with 55 RBIs. Despite the Cabrera-sized hole in the lineup, there is still plenty of protection for Martinez in Yoenis Cespedes, Ian Kinsler, and Jose Iglesias. James McCann has provided enough punch from the catcher’s spot to offset the rapid decline of Alex Avila.

The real reason Detroit has struggled this year has nothing to do with a lack of offensive production. Unlike in year’s past, where the Tigers had one of the deepest rotations, Detroit ranks 13th in the league with a 4.15 staff ERA. The starting rotation, with the exception of David Price, has pitched terribly. The team’s starters have pitched to a 4.26 ERA, good for 22nd in all of Major League Baseball, and that’s including David Price and his 2.54 ERA. Excluding Price, the rest of the starters — Anibal Sanchez, Alfredo Simon, Justin Verlander, Shane Greene, and a host of other forgettable names — have a 4.80 ERA, which would land them ahead of only the Milwaukee Brewers, Colorado Rockies, and Philadelphia Phillies. When trying to nail down a playoff spot for the fifth consecutive year, those are not exactly the types of teams you want to be associated with.

A lot will be determined over the next three weeks leading into the Trade Deadline. As the deadline approaches, the Tigers will need to seriously consider the state of their playoff hopes, as well as their future. Justin Verlander appears to have entered the twilight of his career. David Price will be a free agent following the season, and a payday approaching $30 million per season does not seem out of the question. How wise does it seem for the Tigers to pay one pitcher that much when the rest of the rotation is largely a black hole?

Over the past year-and-a-half, the Tigers have traded away seven of their top-ten prospects according to Baseball America. Only three of their first round picks the past decade remain in the organization. Their organizational talent pool ranks 30th in Major League Baseball. In case you have forgotten, there are only 30 teams in the league. The Tigers have gone for broke to keep their string of playoff berths alive, but in the result have left the cupboard bare of prospects. The Tigers resurrected their franchise through smart drafting, but fighting to remain World Series contenders on a yearly basis has left them with very little in terms of potential minor league help.

With a struggling rotation, and equally terrible bullpen (review last season’s ALDS against the Baltimore Orioles if you need to see how bad the bullpen is again), the Tigers are left at a crossroads this season. Do they push their chips to the center of the table again and pursue a rental arm like Johnny Cueto or Scott Kazmir, or do they attempt to rebuild the farm system by selling off David Price?

There has been very little leaked out regarding a contract extension for Price, but it is doubtful the Tigers will trade him despite his impending free agency. A truly elite pitcher like Price should demand a much steeper price than what the Tampa Bay Rays were willing to accept for him last year. In trading Price, the Tigers could easily land a cache of top prospects that would help rebuild a farm system that has been drained by go-for-broke trades the past decade. With very little help on the horizon, it does not appear wise for the Tigers to break the bank for Price, and by holding onto him beyond the deadline, the Tigers risk losing him for nothing.

Price, of course, is going nowhere if the Tigers are able to keep their heads above water the next three weeks. Tigers’ owner Mike Ilitch desperately wants a World Series title, and will not wave the white flag on the season if Detroit has any hope of making the playoffs. Still though, it is difficult to imagine the Tigers would have enough pieces to acquire an ace they so desperately need such as Cueto, Kazmir, or Cole Hamels. A lower tier starter would not be worth the prospect cost, either.

The 2015 Trade Deadline will ultimately be a make-or-break moment for the Detroit Tigers. They can go the way of the Philadelphia Phillies, a franchise who continuously burned through prospects to acquire aces and now faces an uphill battle to return to contention, or they can begin the process of rebuilding without totally blowing things up. The Tigers likely have a strong enough lineup to remain in contention the remainder of the year, but are a losing streak away from falling out of the picture. The next three weeks, without Miguel Cabrera will decide things for the 2015 season. Further emptying the farm system to reach the playoffs would be a mistake. By no means should the Tigers sell everything, but come July 31st, if Detroit finds themselves more than five games from a playoff berth, serious consideration needs to be given to trading David Price. That would be a difficult move to make, but it could be one that saves the Tigers from becoming the Philadelphia Phillies of the American League — a team that went for it one too many times and had to face the consequences later.

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